Freeze, Gopher! … Here, Mr. Packer, Is This Your Ball? … The Myth Of The Famed Cleveland Running Game … Don't Sell Yourself Short, Mr. Billick. You're A Tremendous Slouch.

"License to kill gophers by the government of the United Nations. Man, free to kill gophers at will. To kill, you must know your enemy, and in this case my enemy is a varmint. And a varmint will never quit - ever. They're like the Viet Cong - Varmint Cong. So you have to lie back on superior intelligence and superior firepower. And that's all she wrote." – Carl Spackler, Caddyshack

WADHAMS, Mich. – I have gophers.

My entire front lawn is a maze of tunnels, and it's the dastardly work of these vile beasts.

It's been an unseasonably warm, snowless winter thus far in Michigan's Thumb. Hence, the gophers have been free to burrow through the unfrozen soil, turning my grass into an intricate pattern of underground passageways. Their warrens are outlined by mounds of dirt. My once pristine lawn is now a shameful embarrassment.

An editor with whom I work insists it's not gophers investing my yard, but moles instead.

I, however, know better. And the gophers must die.

I have a plan to rid myself of the vermin. Once I lay my hands on a winter-pattern ghillie suit, I intend to lay in wait for the contemptible creatures. With my powerful Lee-Enfield rifle, I intend to wage an unrelenting jihad on gopherdom.

Sure, I could invest in traps, poisons or some electronic gimcrack to rid myself in a humane way of the furry pestilence. But overwhelming, unrelenting firepower – though it leaves little margin for error – is the only way to be sure you've eliminated the gopher insurgency.

I checked into other options for my gopher crusade, but C-4 explosive compound is tough to come by these days and surplus 105-mm howitzers are expensive and annoy the neighbors. Land mines simply aren't fashionable anymore in light of that Afghanistan business, and cluster munitions just don't pack the punch I seek.

Hence, I'll stick with direct firepower. British .303-caliber ammunition has enough wallop to render your average Michigan gopher into a bloody mass of hamburger and bone splinters.

The wicked Tali-gophers' days are numbered.

Speaking of numbered days, the 2001 season is mercifully winding down for the Cleveland Browns.

Butch Davis has gophers of his own, and a rifle isn't really an option for him. Not even a beer bottle. The losses are piling up at a Chris Palmer pace and quarterback Tim Couch is heaving the ball to everyone but his own receivers.

Carl Spackler, where art thou?

Clearly, this season is a wash. Road games Sunday at Tennessee and next weekend at Pittsburgh are the final acts in this tragicomedy. A 7-9 finish would salvage some semblance of the respect lost after a five-game slide. Dare we hope? Does this team have enough gas left in the tank?

Better yet, does it have enough players? Cleveland is approaching a two-platoon injured reserve roster. The Berea headquarters must be more like a MASH triage than a football training facility.

Things are so bad, Jamir Miller's outstanding season at outside linebacker has been sacrificed because he's been impressed into service as a defensive end. Imagine the impact Courtney Brown could have had on this season.

Imagine the impact Tim Couch could have had, too, if not for the third straight season of a general team collapse.

I was ready to level both barrels at Couch for his inept performance against the Packers, but I'm holding off. It's simply not all his fault. Sunday's disaster at Green Bay was primarily caused by Couch's blunders, but the bulk of blame for the five-game losing streak lays elsewhere, mainly on the offensive line, wide receivers and the coaching staff.

For the moment, though, let's talk about Couch.

His 18 interceptions are the most for a Browns passer since Vinny Testaverde tossed that many in 1994. Couch will certainly throw a few more in the season's final two weeks. The last Cleveland quarterback with more than 18 picks was southpaw disaster Paul McDonald, whose 23 interceptions in 1983 are fourth most in team history. Brian Sipe's 26 pickoffs in 1979 are the team record.

Unlike McDonald, Couch and Sipe aren't guilty of blithering ineptitude. Instead, their interceptions come from over aggressiveness. Couch forces the ball to Kevin Johnson too many times because: 1. Johnson is becoming one of the league's elite receivers; 2. Johnson has hands of a master thief; 3. Johnson is all Couch has.

I freely admit interceptions irritate the mortal piss out of me. Can't stand ‘em. Sure, there are garbage picks that come on Hail Mary passes. Hard to fault any quarterback for those.

Couch has also fallen victim to ham-fisted receivers letting the ball bounce away to a defender. Quincy Morgan did just that against New England. Oh, the rage …

That Couch hasn't blasted his receivers for being collectively brain dead is a testament to the young quarterback's maturity. It's what separates him from the Cade McNowns and Ryan Leafs (Leaves?) of the world.

Instead, he says all the right things, and says them with conviction.

"I'm still going to keep slinging it down the field, interceptions or not," he said after his trio of picks at Lambeau Field.

Sipe kept slinging downfield, and when a talented group of players meshed in 1980, it produced a team-record 30 touchdown passes, an 11-5 record and a playoff berth.

Perhaps Couch will follow a similar path. Perhaps he could skip that last-second interception-in-the-end-zone-against-the-Raiders thing that's plagued Sipe for 21 years. Throw it away, Tim, throw it away.

Couch is on the bubble for 2002. It actually will be more like a third season for him because of the time he missed with injuries, but the bottom line is that 2002 is it for Couch. He must show significant signs of being The Franchise.

I've little doubt Butch Davis like spend the offseason assembling the blockers and weapons Couch needs to be successful. A retooled offensive line, healthy players and an average running game are reasonable expectations for next fall. Then, it will be up to the young man from the hills of the Bluegrass State.

All this talk of throwing the football has me thinking. For reasons unknown, the Browns have a mystique that they're traditionally a running team, a franchise built around a powerful ground attack.

History simply doesn't bear that out. Yes, the Browns lived and died by Jim Brown in the 1960s, relied on the Pruitts and in 1970s and '80s and had a pair of runners each grind out at least 1,000 yards in 1985. But in all that time, the team won just a single championship.

The team has three running backs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly and Marion Motley. But there are also three Cleveland receivers in the Hall, too: Ozzie Newsom, Paul Warfield and Dante Lavelli.

FYI: Bobby Mitchell made the Hall more as a Redskins flanker than a Browns halfback.

In 1964, the Browns last world championship season, Jim Brown led the league with 1,446 yards on the ground. But quarterback Frank Ryan tossed 25 touchdowns, and another three in the title game. It was the reputation as a running team that allowed the passing game to blossom.

In the early years, quarterback Otto Graham orchestrated an offense that systematically took apart the opposition with a passing game set up by Marion Motley's fine trap-and-sweep running. But it was Graham's right arm that led Cleveland to 10 consecutive championship games.

By the 1980s, the team had invested itself in Bernie Kosar, the gangly local boy with an uncanny ability to win games while throwing from every position but the textbook one. Fans loved him. He got Cleveland to the brink of glory three times. It wasn't meant to be.

Now, the Dawg Pound has Tim Couch. Is he the quarterback that will take the team over the hump that Kosar couldn't? Or is he the next Mike Phipps?

OK, he'll never be that bad, but you get the point. Phipps was a mistake from Day 1.

We won't find the answer this season, but we'll get some clues. How Couch handles the final two games of the season in very hostile environments – while under intense media and public scrutiny – will give us a peek at what the future holds.

In the meantime, let's thank providence we don't have under center men with names like Kordell, Akili or Elvis.

So we got that goin' for us, which is nice.

NOTES: Don't read much into Jamel White's career day against the Packers. He's purely a situational player who was in his element Sunday. The slick field conditions at Green Bay allowed him to cut back against the flow of the Packers' defense, which was slipping all over the place. White certainly earned his paycheck, but don't look for him to have that kind of afternoon in September or October. … Picture this: 20 years from now, Brian Billick is old and gray. Is he not Caddyshack's Judge Spalding Smales? "Elvis, are you my pal?" I'd rather have Ted Knight coach my team than Billick any day. You just know Billick has a play called "Billy Baroo." … How ‘bout that stiff-arm by Couch while he was running out of bounds? I was only half-paying attention because I was busy on the City Desk, but he put some Green Bay linebacker on his behind with a wicked blow. Nice, Tim, nice. Interceptions or not, he's a tough SOB. … Happy holidays and don't be stupid. I see nightly on the City Desk at my real job what drinking and driving does to people. Leave jail and murder for real scumbags, like Ray Lewis and Co.

Doc Gonzo is a former Ohio newspaper reporter and editor. He now lives in a remote part of Michigan's Thumb, safe from knaves, fools and Ratbirds – but not filthy gophers. He can be reached at docgonzo19@aol.com.

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